|Brookfield's plan for Bethesda Metro Center|
Developer Brookfield's sketch plan for its 4 Bethesda Metro Center project was unanimously approved by the Montgomery County Planning Board this afternoon. The plan met with stiff opposition from neighbor Clark Enterprises and a broad coalition of citizens. Email communications against the project easily overwhelmed those in support by about 80% to 20%, based on the compiled record provided by the Planning Department. But planning commissioners largely pushed back on opponents, with one bizarrely comparing residents to ICE agents who "put kids in cages."
Much of the opposition centered on the question of whether the majority of open space should be facing Wisconsin Avenue, or wrap around the building as the Brookfield plan proposes. Brookfield's plan does include a fair amount of public space in front of the tower, which they refer to as the Metro Commons. It also creates a promenade alongside the 290' residential building the developer compares favorably with Bethesda Lane at Bethesda Row. Behind at a rear corner will be a lawn and programmed gathering space, that will include art exhibits directed by Arts Brookfield, the entity Brookfield operates arts programs through in several major cities around the world.
Proponents of Brookfield's plan included Bethesda resident Amelia Ciriani, who called it "just what we need for Bethesda Metro Center. I absolutely love the idea." "Bethesda should be so lucky as to have Brookfield program this space," transit activist Tina Slater testified, referring to Arts Brookfield.
Mary Jo Peebles of Bethesda urged commissioners to deny approval of the plan, calling for more study to consider "what it feels like to walk the streets" around such developments. Like many speaking in opposition, she referred to the 3-D models of the Metro Center on display on the table before her, which were prepared by former Montgomery County Planning Director Richard Tustian. Tustian also provided thorough testimony in opposition to the project, asking commissioners to deny the application, and "initiate alternative design studies."
|Richard Tustian's 3-D model #1|
The models, silently but prominently displayed, subversively tweaked those who argue such three-dimensional renderings cannot be provided by developers, as Tustian assembled these relatively quickly at home. They had a strong impact on the conversation. "Oh my golly, that's horrible," one resident said after examining the 3-D version of what the plaza will look like with Brookfield's plan. On the other side, one Brookfield proponent objected to having to testify with the models in front of her.
|Tustian's second model, showing a|
larger plaza facing Wisconsin Avenue
Bethesda resident Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, an environmental scientist whose career included 18 years at the EPA, said downtown Bethesda is "rapidly becoming a concrete jungle." She spoke in opposition to Brookfield's plan, and called for more open space at the Metro Center plaza. "Democracy depends on the ability of citizens to find open space, safe space, where they can talk, organize and share ideas," she said.
Despite the strong opposition on display before and during the hearing, commissioners dismissed the opponents and voted to approve the plan. If that wasn't enough reminder of why term limits passed overwhelmingly in 2016, Commissioner Natali Fani-González took the nose-thumbing one bizarre step further, comparing opponents who called on her to "do the right thing" to ICE agents who "put kids in cages." She said ICE employees she has spoken to in her role as an activist say they are "doing the right thing" in implementing federal immigration law. Raising her voice slightly, Fani-González said "I'm doing the right thing for my people, which will be very different from yours."
Considering that a majority of those who opposed the plan were Democrats, many in the room were offended by the remarks, which were certainly unnecessary and out-of-bounds.
I think a lot of the opposition could either have been solved - or alternatively, hardened - if more detailed renderings had been provided. Personally, I have not taken a position for or against the 4 Bethesda Metro Center plan in part for that reason. Based on what has been shown, I think there is potential for Brookfield's plan to be successful, but I am puzzled as to why we cannot see detailed renderings of the actual building to fully understand how it will relate to its surroundings and the proposed open space.
When Carr Properties rolled out its vision for 7272 Wisconsin, right at the beginning, they brought out highly-regarded architect Robert Sponseller. The impressive renderings of true trophy towers, and Sponseller's promises of touches like a staircase you would find at a "nice Italian villa," helped considerably to start the project off on a positive note with the community. Opposition to Carr's plan among the larger public has been quieter than in the case of the Metro Center or Westbard, for example. 7272 Wisconsin is a much-bigger project than 4 Bethesda Metro Center, so it's unclear why it is so challenging to provide the same detail. To be fair from a technical requirement standpoint, Carr's rollout included a site plan as opposed to just the sketch plan application, but it was still at the start of the public process.
Brookfield will be required to provide more detailed renderings at the Preliminary Plan stage by one of the conditions imposed in today's approval. Again, I still have hope that the Brookfield plan will turn out to be a success. We really can't afford for it not to be, and it will define Bethesda for tourists and economic development scouts for decades to come.
I happen to like the design of the Bethesda Metro Center as it is, at least until somebody decided to add artwork around the rim of the platform above the bus bays that looked like someone had defaced it with graffiti during the night. I was not even aware years ago that there was ever a plan to add another building to it, and it seems to really throw off the balance of he design. The fantastic modern architecture of the existing buildings, the dramatic fountain, and the sweeping open plaza are an impressive welcome to downtown Bethesda by car or transit.
Frankly, the poorly-conceived design restrictions in the worst-of-both-worlds Bethesda Downtown Plan, actually prevent the sort of artistic crown-jewel centerpiece effect that the final tower needs to work in its context. Yes, those same guidelines that are resulting in most of the new projects coming in under the new plan resembling each other. Oops. If Brookfield can somehow figure a way around those restrictions to deliver the needed effect here, and reactivate the plaza, I'm all in favor of their plan. They've certainly got the design minds on board that could do it.
I watched the current Metro Center being constructed while drinking Orange Freezes at the Hot Shoppes across the street. At the time, I was upset about the loss of the existing retail, movie theater, carousel and Swensen's Ice Cream. But the resulting redevelopment turned out better than I could have imagined. I'm not sure the perceived "failure" of the plaza has much to do with its architectural design, but simply with the fact that those in charge stopped using it for an ice rink, fireworks, and Christmas tree lightings. Hopefully, Brookfield can restore some of that energy and atmosphere again in the context of this plan, and through whatever improvements or refinements will be made at the Preliminary and Site Plan stages.